Not having rules is a form of neglect

It’s difficult to enforce rules for kids because the more rules I choose to enforce the more work I make for myself. This is true with a six-year-old or sixteen-year-old.

I convince myself to be the enforcer because not having rules is something I do for myself, not my kids. Not making Z make his bed means I don’t have to think about it. Ever. Not making him practice means I can just focus on my own work. Telling myself he’s too old for me to have to do this is really easy. Then I don’t have to figure out how to teach him to do it himself.

And then he has to make decisions all day long about what to do. That causes decision fatigue. And, if he’s not making decisions each day about what to do with themselves they’re on autopilot, and that’s not good either. Rules are guides for making good decisions. Kids who have no rules either seek other people to make rules for them, or they start making up their own desperate rules.

I tell myself this every day because I grew up with no rules. We lived in an upscale community and my parents were gone almost all the time from when I was in first grade.

My brother and I constantly compensated for massive neglect so we could appear cared for and normal. Having no rules was scary.

Many other people saw us as spoiled because we had no rules. For example it was before credit cards but we had a charge account at every store. We could buy anything but we never knew what we needed until we saw what other kids had that we were missing, so we shopped all the time.

We made up rules for ourselves so we could be like other kids, like, “I have to go home for dinner now.” And we took over jobs we were too young for so we could have the feeling of being normal, like opening and sorting mail and cleaning the house.

I didn’t brush my teeth regularly until I was in high school because it was so hard to just keep track of all the rules no one was enforcing, let alone follow them.

When you think a kid is spoiled, you are actually seeing a parent who can’t handle the conflict necessary to give a child boundaries. Kids love boundaries. Boundaries are safe spaces for exploration. Even teenagers love boundaries, because it means someone is paying attention.

I have to check myself all the time to make sure I’m not using homeschooling as an excuse for not giving my kids boundaries.I think this why I love Kyra Schmidt’s transcriptions series.

To my eye, Schmidt adds a boundary that makes an infinite or foreboding space feel safer. If kids aren’t pushing up against those boundaries, something’s wrong. Either the boundaries aren’t in the right spot, or the kid is too scared to explore. This tension is the core of  parental love and child rearing. So it’s apt that Schmidt makes boundaries beautiful.

9 replies
  1. Mary Kay
    Mary Kay says:

    I love what you said and I’m impressed you were able to figure all of this out with such a mature perspective. Ironically many people these days see rules and boundaries as restrictive and freedom limiting but in truth ultimate freedom comes from ultimate responsible living and self control. I’m sure this is going to raise hair on the back of your reader’s necks but the Ten Commandments are just that. As is God’s law of chastity. What child is ultimately healthier and happier? One born to a loving couple in a committed stable marriage or one born to a single teenaged girl, or one aborted by that girl? Who gets the better outcome? All three are real people.

  2. Amelia
    Amelia says:

    The art reminds me of a guideline that I read for backyard garden design: you want to have a backdrop so that the eye does not continue searching forever for the horizon. With a backdrop, you can really appreciate the garden. And that is how I convinced my husband to help me plant 60 arborvitae two weeks ago.

  3. Teri
    Teri says:

    I find enforcing rules to be so dispiriting that after unschooling my boys through 8th grade, they are both now in school. So many rules are made simply for their own sake. There’s a balance I’ve had a difficult time maintaining. I didn’t need a lot of rules as a kid, so didn’t have many. I thought my kids would be similar, but it really doesn’t always work that way!

    • Bostonian
      Bostonian says:

      Go easy on yourself, Teri. At a certain point, a kid’s developmental job includes arguing with all the rules, or subverting them. It’s hard to be on the other side of that, and choosing a teacher to be on the other side of it is much more comfortable. Then you get to be your kid’s ally again instead of his opponent.

      My son asked to go back to school in seventh grade, and if he hadn’t asked I might have sent him anyway, because our agreements weren’t working anymore. If you’re spending all your time discussing why your kid didn’t do what he was supposed to, all he’s learning is how to argue, or strategic petulance, or some such. It’s not doing either of you any favors to continue with that.

      This is one of the great challenges: our kids aren’t like us. My ideas of what I would have loved, educationally, as a child, were absolutely irrelevant to both my kids.

  4. Erin
    Erin says:

    I’ll be honest, I am struggling so hard to get my kids to adhere to my rules. Something as simple as brushing their teeth is a fight every time. I don’t know if it’s pandemic fatigue or single parent household fatigue or just part of growing pains.

    I say this. And then I have the voice of my therapist inside my head, “You’re too hard on yourself, Erin. You’re doing a good job.”

    I don’t know. Maybe the fear of not doing a good job is what keep me trying to be a better parent for my kids than my parents were for me. My parents had tons of rules, but their rules were things like “it’s not ok to be gay” and “girls have to be submissive” and “do as i say or i will spank you in public.”

    My kids have set media times. They have (flexible) bedtimes. They are required to treat each other and myself with respect. The older they get, they have chores, and they are doing them, for the most part. We are unschooling, and they are directing their own learning.

    I just wish they’d brush their teeth.

  5. GenerationXpert
    GenerationXpert says:

    I’m not so sure I set a lot of “rules” for my kids (now age 17 and 20) as much as “expectations.” My BFF is big on rules and often times it doesn’t seem like her kids (in the same age range) get their shit done. For instance, my college age kid knows it’s up to her to pay her rent or register for a full load of classes so she doesn’t lose her scholarship. She also knows mom and dad pay for some, scholarships pay for some, and she’s responsible for some. My BFF’s kid, same age, same college, is constantly needing reminding and just not getting his act together. I would say financially I’m more generous with my kids that my folks were with me. I don’t make them pay for their own haircuts, for example. But they both know they have to pay for gas and I won’t. Guess what, they always have a part time job and manage their own money in their own bank accounts. Oh, and I don’t care if they don’t make their beds. if they want their friends to come over and see their mess, oh well. One of my kids is a neat freak and the other couldn’t care less if her friends come over and her room is a disaster.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I’m starting to think that it might not matter what the rules are as much as that a parent makes a commitment to facing the arduous task of productive conflict with their kids. Parents can set up life so that there is no conflict with the kids. The parents don’t ask for anything that will require the parents to nag all the time. Or, maybe it’s that the parents set things up so the kids are terrified of doing something that the parents don’t like. In both those cases the parents avoid daily conflict of enforcing rules.

      I’m thinking that the hardest part of parenting maybe — I’m still mulling this over — is to set expectations that are a little bit of a reach for the kids, and then help them each day to meet those expectations by being on top of them. Little conflicts all day long. Some people would call that tiger parenting, or nudging, or whatever. You could make it sound positive or negative. But it’s the process of being involved all the time to help the kid doing things that are a little difficult for the kid.

      To me it’s the same as me telling my kid to learn math on his own, online, or have a tutor sit with him and push him to do it a little faster, a little more organized and more thorough, but he needs assignments and tests to do that. I can’t hire a tutor for everything. Sometimes I have to do that pushing.


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